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Hannah Rich reviews The Utopians by Anna Neima, which charts the rise and (almost universal) fall of six real–world utopian experiments across the world. 07/07/2021
Amid the uncertainty and anxiety of the last eighteen months, the idea of starting from scratch has scarce seemed so appealing. Conversations about rebuilding and remaking society in a post–pandemic world proliferate. Anna Neima’s captivating and meticulously researched new book The Utopians charts the rise and (almost universal) fall of six real–world utopian experiments across the world in the aftermath of the First World War. The common experience of great loss and grief inspired individuals from Bengal to Devon and rural France to California to dream of social equality, self–sufficiency and the creation of a utopia.
Neima’s academic background is in history, and her book is resolutely historical in its approach to the subject matter. She recounts the collective trauma of the First World War being followed immediately by a devastating flu pandemic – ‘to many, the combined destruction of the war and pandemic seemed so terrible as to destroy any hope for the future.’ (p.4) – without drawing any direct parallels to the present day. The resonance of idealism abounding after a season of global disorientation is clear. What is less clear is whether the lack of any explicit reference to the Covid–19 pandemic and the current feverish political climate is a deliberate editorial choice or down to the timing of the publication process. Either way, it works; the stories are allowed to speak for themselves without labouring the point.
Many of the practical utopian communities described are characterised by a haphazard way of life driven by the ideals of a bourgeois intelligentsia. The stories of the rituals and riotous meals of George Gurdjieff’s Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man could be straight from the pages of a Mitford novel. Dorothy Straight, wife of the founder of Dartington Hall in Devon, was a wealthy social reformer frustrated by the inability of philanthropy alone to effect radical social transformation. Neima describes her as being ‘cocooned in the unreality generated by money’ (p64), with her attempts to deny her own privilege seen as more conspicuous than the acceptance or lack of it. At Fontainebleau, the ‘Dickensian lifestyle of hard labour and short rations’ (p.145) was passed off as moral asceticism when in reality it belied financial difficulties. There is little evidence of a strategy in any of these attempts to build a perfect society, even if they are underpinned by deep idealism and the earnest desire to change the world.
All the communities found it hard to maintain unity and financial stability as they grew and diversified. Some sort of leadership became necessary even in those communities grounded in spiritual egalitarianism. The rejection of mainstream ideals and economic systems did not liberate them from all practical considerations; there is a lovely anecdote about how one of the earliest difficulties faced by Rabindranath Tagore and Leonard Elmhirst was in improving the toilet facilities for villagers in Bengal. The first time the students themselves engaged in the process of emptying the latrine buckets was described by Elmhirst as a ‘red letter day in the history of [the] new institution’ (p.35). Toilet facilities are rarely front–and–centre in the envisioning of utopia, but here it is the first demonstrable success in the development of the community.
This is primarily an account of the founding leadership of each community, rather than their disciples. Some consideration of the motivations and experiences of the latter would seem equally critical if one wants to understand why so little persists of the envisioned utopias. Only one of the six case studies outlived its founder. The ‘fractious and fractured legacy’ of most of the communities is acknowledged as unsurprising when ‘long–term stability is not to be expected of a community of spiritual seekers held together largely by the force of one man’s personality and vision.’ (p.160)
It would be a gross oversimplification to suggest that the longevity of the Bruderhof community is attributable to its basis in the Bible. Yet it is not entirely coincidental that the only one of the communities still in existence is also the only one grounded in a fundamental embrace rather than rejection of established ideologies or religions. While the Bruderhof sought to live out radically the model of the early church in the book of Acts, the founders of Trabuco College in California wanted to replace entirely a Christianity that they ‘felt was not a faith fit for modern times, since it did not incorporate science and had failed to prevent the First World War’ (p.203). Both were disillusioned with a Christian ideology that had been invoked in search of victory by both sides of the war, with very different results. In practical as well as spiritual terms, the biblical blueprint of Bruderhof is missing in the other experiments.
In her introduction, Neima highlights the double etymology of Thomas More’s notion of utopia, commonly interpreted as “good place” when it originates instead in “no place”. The construction of a utopian community, as the book goes on to argue convincingly, is also reflected in this combination of challenge and impossibility. Yet, as the concluding sentence of The Utopians tells us, the eponymous idealists ‘have always refused to accept current definitions of what is possible, and have infused the world with a new, optimistic energy’ (p. 237) that feels vital in the present day every bit as much as a century ago.
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